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Quality and Sustainability: Why Colombia could become the next exporting giant

By ProColombia
Coffee, Colombia’s largest export
Coffee, Colombia’s largest export   -   Copyright  Getty Images
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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Colombia is set to become one of the world’s largest food exporters. If it succeeds, Europe will be seeing more Colombian produce on its supermarket shelves than ever before.

Colombia, with its Caribbean coastline, soaring Andean peaks and lush Amazonian jungle, is best known around the world for its specialty coffee. The sweet and floral Arabica bean, which has been cultivated in Colombia’s mist-shrouded Zona Cafetera since the 16th century, is today the country’s largest export. Arabica coffee is Colombia’s most decorated product, too, boasting several international certifications such as UTZ, organic, RainForest, 4C, and FairTrade.

But a great cup of joe isn’t the only thing South America’s fourth-largest country has to offer. Located close to the equatorial border, Colombia is home to some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, including rainforest, moorland, dessert, and savannah. From the tropical grasslands to the east of the Andes to the high-altitude plains and glaciers near Bogota, Colombia’s varied landscape, as well as its non-seasonal climate and ample water resources, make it an agricultural paradise. Experts from the FAO say that, with further funding and the right measures in place, Colombia has the potential to produce a variety of high-quality products year-round, and in large quantities.

But for a country that for so long has focused largely on coffee exports, there are challenges ahead. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, a non-profit organization at the forefront of promoting sustainable agricultural practices in Colombia, has been a key player in diversifying Colombia’s export offering. In recent years, the Federation has launched a programme to encourage Colombian coffee growers to cultivate alternative food products, such as avocados, sugar cane, and passionfruit, alongside the Arabica coffee bean. This will not only help Colombia grow as a mass exporter of organic foods, but could also give thousands of coffee-growing families, who are often at the mercy of fluctuating coffee prices, additional sources of income.

Bananas, a major Colombian export

While coffee remains Colombia’s most in-demand product, the country is experiencing a boom in fresh fruit exports. In 2019, 2.1 million tonnes of fresh fruit was sold internationally, with bananas, avocado and plantain being the most popular, particularly in Europe. According to the European Commission report EU Imports of Organic Agri-Food Products, Colombia's organic product exports to the EU rose from 63,114 tons in 2018 to 87,341 tons in 2019. After coffee and fresh flowers, bananas, which generated 862.1 million in revenue for the country in 2019, are now Colombia’s largest export. Avocados, too, are Colombia’s fastest-growing product, their value now 42% higher than it was in 2018.

According to ProColombia, a government agency in charge of the development of Colombia’s non-traditional exports, part of Colombia’s success in exporting fresh fruit is due to two things: quality and commitment to sustainability. As of 2019, 700 avocado farms had been certified by GlobalG.A.P, a figure that ProColombia said is only set to grow. “International markets are increasingly interested in sustainable fruit practices, so more farms will continue to work towards these social and environmental certifications,” says ProColombia. For the banana industry, on the other hand, ProColombia says there is a strong commitment to workers’ rights. “Unions in the sector, especially in Urubá, ensure that working conditions are good and that workers have access to healthcare and education,” says ProColombia. “Pay is also 45% higher than the minimum wage.”

The Colombian pitaya

While bananas and avocados are Colombia’s star sellers, the country hopes to export a larger variety of fruits to Europe in the coming years. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, ProColombia reported that more people in Europe were buying vitamin C-rich fruits, such as oranges and lemons, to strengthen their immune system. This, ProColombia says, could open doors for Colombia’s lesser-known products, such as pitaya, tamarillo, and soursop. “This is a very good opportunity for exotic Colombian fruits to increase their presence in the European market,” said ProColombia.

Whether Colombia’s more exotic fruits like the pink pitaya and orange tamarillo are a hit with European consumers remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: products of Colombian origin could soon become staples of Europe’s fresh fruit pantry.

It is also worth mentioning that Colombia is one of the most important suppliers of palm oil in America, and the fourth largest producer worldwide. In this context, the country is making steady progress in its intention to consolidate itself as an international leader in sustainable production. It aims to reach zero deforestation in the coming years and to be a world leader in the best production practices to take advantage of the more than 5.2 million hectares that it has with high potential for planting and exporting.